Get Out and Give Back: Gleaning for Good

It’s all about picking corn right off the stalk when volunteering with Bread for the City’s “Glean for the City” program.
By Jane Hess Collins

Katie, Ali and Ross, high school students from Jamestown, New York, enjoyed gleaning at Parker Farms as part of their service trip to Washington, DC.

On a road trip with Bread for the City to the corn fields of Parker Farms last week, 25 of us volunteers discovered some surprising facts about corn and how much is really available to feed the hungry.

Having grown up in a small Ohio town, I know a thing or two about corn. It should be “knee high by the fourth of July.” My brothers and I were instructed to pray for rain during every dry summer so the corn would grow. When we were old enough to use knives, our dad would hold cob-cutting races with us. Whoever cut the longest corn board off of the cob was the winner. Mom still emails me every summer detailing her trip to the farmer’s market to buy the first sweet corn of the season, and how she’s already cooked, cut and packed away a dozen ears’ worth for Thanksgiving.

The Glean for the City program is taken from the word “gleaning” which means “the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.” Parker Farms has partnered with Bread for the City for the last three years, allowing their volunteers to haul away their leftover produce to feed over 100,000 of the district’s hungriest residents.

Rafe Parker, the field manager and son of Parker Farms general manager Rod Parker, met us in the corn field and gave us some surprising inside scoop. The industry standard is to harvest only the top ear, Parker said. Those ears have the greatest chance of meeting USDA specifications. The second ear from the top of the stalk has only a 50% chance of meeting the same specs and the odds decrease the farther the corn is from the top of the stalk.

Appearance matters in the produce world. Cucumbers may not make the USDA cut because they are curved and won’t stack well in the grocery bins. Corn may be perfectly good to eat but too short.

It’s the vegetable version of America’s Next Top Model.

It’s not economically feasible to walk through hundreds of acres of cornfield (or other produce) and hand-pick after the first cutting. Parker encouraged us to gather as much as we could, since the entire field would be plowed the following week. Armed with gigantic bins and bags, the 24 high school kids from the Center for Student Missions in Jamestown, New York, and I began our treasure hunt through the six-foot corn stalks. None of us had ever picked corn like this, and within a few minutes all of us were eating sweet, sun-warmed corn right off of the stalk.

Canned corn will never taste as good.

Within two hours we had gathered and checked about 1,000 pounds of corn. Most of what we gathered looked as good as the top-shelf stuff. We loaded the bins in the rear of the van and headed back to Bread for the City’s food pantry on 7th Street, where Tonya Hamilton, Bread for the City’s AmeriCorps-HealthCorps member and director of Glean for the City, estimated nearly 1,000 of the district’s homeless and hungry will have the chance to taste what Ohioans take for granted every summer.

This trip was Bread for the City’s last corn gleaning with Parker Farms, although Hamilton plans a return trip in October to harvest the leftover broccoli. I don’t know the USDA standards for that, but I’m guessing there will be plenty of broccoli, perfectly edible but not pretty enough to make the cut for Safeway’s produce aisles. In fact, Bread for the City estimates that nearly 50% of all edible produce goes to waste.

Bread for the City also provides clothing, medical care, and legal and social services at their two facilities in northwest and southeast DC. While Glean for the City and the Holiday Helpings meal programs are ideal for groups, most volunteer opportunities are targeted at individuals who can commit to at least three months during the workday. They also have a comprehensive wish list.

Personally, I recommend the gleaning program. There aren’t many opportunities near the metro DC area to wander through a corn field.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow her other Get Out and Give Back volunteer stories on Facebook, Twitter and her website.

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